In the comments following my previous post on the problems with a particular form of the evangelical gospel presentation, I was asked how I would go about presenting the gospel, and how I would capture some of the core gospel themes for which I argued in my conclusion. Given the importance of this question, I thought that it would be worth reposting and slightly expanding on my remarks here. The gospel should be at the heart of all that we are, do, and think as Christians, so getting it right must be of paramount importance for us. The following thoughts, which are presented in no particular order, are not a gospel presentation itself, but are some pointers to how we might best go about presenting it.
A Multi-faceted Gospel
First, I don’t think in terms of a single gospel presentation. The unity of the gospel does not reside in a particular presentation, logic, or formula, but in God’s gracious self-revealing saving work in Jesus Christ. The gospel is good news to us in innumerable different ways. Different aspects of the good news may be especially important for particular people or cultures at particular times. Rather than trying to force all people through one conveyor belt approach to presenting the gospel, I believe that we need to know the gospel inside out, so that we can improvise our presentation of it in a way that looks each person straight in the eyes, speaking God’s grace in Christ directly into their unique situation. Of course, this demands an intimate acquaintance with the gospel on our part and a profound reliance upon the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit as we bear witness to Christ to each person or context.
For certain people we might tell the gospel as the message of deliverance from the fear of death, loss, and failure and all that that entails. For others the gospel might be the message of a rescue from chaos, whether that is societal, personal, or cosmic. For others, the gospel might be less a message of rescue or deliverance, and more a message of transcendent beauty and joy and of the ultimate affirmation of the goodness of creation. For others, the gospel is the personal message of their value and place in the world and in the sight of God. For others, the gospel is the assurance of meaning and purpose in human life and action. For others, the gospel is the message of forgiveness for past sins, the overcoming of present ones, and deliverance from crippling personal and cultural guilt. For others, the gospel is the message of the liberation of the oppressed and the defeat of all tyrants. For others, the gospel is the message of the overcoming of all human divisions, the bringing together of all ethnicities, people groups, male and female, the generations, etc. The gospel is all of these things – and much more besides – for all of us, of course, but we may need to accent different dimensions of the message in particular times and places.
A Story, Not a Formula
Second, I would focus upon telling a story, rather than explaining some logic or formula. In the video in my previous post, much of the presentation consists of supposed logical demands of justice, which cannot actually be found on the pages of Scripture itself, and which are alien to much that is there. A logical system or a formula is akin to a mechanistic process that we go through. However, such a system cannot capture our hearts and imaginations. Rather than a system or formula, God has given us a drama, a drama which we are taken up within, a drama in which the script becomes embedded and embodied in us in Christ. Unlike a system or formula, this drama radically transforms us as subjects, in our identity, our agency, our subjectivity, and our actions. This drama makes us part of a body of actors in Christ, and reveals the whole creation to be God’s stage.
Most of the Bible is concerned with telling stories, stories within a great Story. Our world has lost its cohesion, its narratability, and all scatter to their private narratives. To this world, God has given a Word, a story, in which all of our disparate plots can become united, in one glorious dénouement. As we learn to tell the gospel as story, we will begin to recognize why the Gospels that God inspired are fundamentally stories. We will also start to appreciate the importance of Israel and the Old Testament within God’s story.
Third, God’s love for his creation, his determination not to let sin destroy it, and his commitment to restorative justice, setting to rights all that has gone wrong, would be central. Rather than a stress upon punitive justice, restorative justice would be the dominant theme. God’s justice is about wiping the tears from all eyes, about healing all harms, about repairing all breaches, and righting all wrongs.
God is faithful to his creation and to his people in covenant. The world wasn’t created in a neutral state, related to God purely in terms of absolute justice, but was created in an act of love and in a gracious relationship. Rather than bare and cold justice at the root, creation springs from divine love and gracious gift. God’s creation is one of peace and communion, of growth and fecundity, of joy and laughter, of blessing and provision. God’s justice is about restoring and perfecting this creation, about forming a creation so glorious that it bursts the humble seed casing of this present heavens and earth to burgeon and to bloom eternal.
The Place of Hell
Fourth, hell would have a very different place in the picture that I am suggesting. Rather than being the threat that frames the whole message of good news, hell would be entirely framed by the message of divine love and commitment to restoring creation. The possibility of eternal loss would be presented as something lying in far closer continuity with current dehumanizing patterns of life. In understanding hell, the focus would be on eternal loss as a consequence of rejection of God’s image in ourselves, others, and most particularly in Christ.
Hell would not be presented as being primarily about eternal ‘punishment’ inflicted by God upon the sinner, but about the natural consequences of our erasure of God’s image in ourselves and others. Punishment is an important part of the biblical picture, of course, but far more dominant is loss, separation, and fruitless regret. When hell is spoken of, it would have to be seen as bound up with God’s purpose to set the world to rights. Those who cling to wickedness and oppression and reject God’s good purpose in Christ risk the eternal consequences that result from spurning the source of all life and goodness.
The Perfection of the Creation, Not Just its Salvation
Fifth, God created a world that he desired to grow into the fullness of fellowship with himself. The world is created good, but immature and not yet perfect. The created world is like a toddler that needs to grow up into the fullness of adulthood. Sin throws this development off course and twists it. God’s purpose exceeds overcoming the effects of sin, being designed to bring the creation to its full stature and glory, and to flood it with his presence. This is a key dimension of the gospel message: a perfected and glorified new creation.
Christ at the Heart
Sixth, the purpose of God for creation is Christ. It is in Christ that we see the content of God’s will for us. It is in his communion with the Father, the loving faithfulness of his life, and the resurrection of his body that we see what God has in store for humanity and the creation. It is in Christ that we know the communion between God and the creation that was intended from the start. In presenting the gospel, Christ must always be in the absolute centre of our picture. Anything else is not the gospel.
A Gospel for Flesh and Blood
Seventh, in speaking of the problems of death and alienation, I would root these firmly in our physical existence. The alienation resulting from sin and death is an alienation between human persons, not just between God and the individual soul. It is an alienation that exists between us and our bodies. It is an alienation that exists between bodies. It is an alienation that exists between us and the creation. It is an alienation that is at work within the creation itself. It is not merely a matter of individual sins, but of evil systems and structures that oppress us. It is a matter of nations and powers, of ideologies and systems, of families and communities. Christ came to address all of these things. Christ came to save all of these things. A gospel that throws a lifebuoy to souls, but has nothing to say about the environment, racism, broken families, disabled bodies, wars, and famines is not a gospel that can really save me.
Humanity Made New
Eighth, God’s restoration of his image in man would be presented as integral to the gospel. Sanctification is not merely something that we do out of gratitude, or a work of God of secondary importance, but is integral to God’s purpose and our salvation. To be saved is to have God’s Law written on our hearts and to be conformed to his image. The good news of the gospel is that God has promised to accomplish and perfect this work in us, and that we can receive it by faith, and not as an autonomous work that we must accomplish for ourselves. When we see Christ, we will be like him. Are there many truths that are more exciting than that?
A God Who Welcomes Sinners
Ninth, people will only truly see their sin for what it is when they see Jesus Christ for who he is. Consequently, I would focus a lot less upon drawing people’s attention directly to their sin, and a lot more upon Christ as the Image of God, and the pattern of true humanity. I would present people with God’s overwhelming love, welcome, and salvation. Sin is revealed through this. As we enter into God’s light, we see ourselves for what we really are. However, within this way of presenting the gospel, our sins take on a very different aspect. Christ hasn’t come to condemn us, but to welcome us. As we are overwhelmed by God’s love and welcome, we will become increasingly aware of our sin as something holding us back and tying us down, and will long to be free of it, so that we can run to God with lighter feet. We do not need to feel condemned to bemoan our sin. We must teach a gospel of love and reconciliation, rather than one of condemnation and fear.
A God Who Makes All Things New!
Tenth, within the ‘gospel’ video in my previous post, the resurrection is merely a great miracle to prove that Jesus is God: ‘I rose from the dead to prove that I was God and that everything that I said was true.’ Everything focuses on the cross as a means of paying the price that means that we don’t go to hell. My approach to telling the gospel message would place the accent firmly upon the truth that Christ has risen from the dead, and is Lord of all. Christ’s death is not merely paying the punishment for our sins, but is the assumption of the full weight of death and alienation, so that it might be decisively and definitely overcome. The resurrection is the great victory. It is the exclamation mark of the gospel: ‘Christ is risen! Alleluia!’ It is the assurance and foretaste of God’s purposes for the whole creation. It is the promise that God will make all things new.
This, I believe, is truly good news.